Ingonish, by Land and Sea

UNDER the northern shadow of Cape Smoky there is a double bay, cut in two by a rocky peninsula called Middle Head. Into the half of the bay next to Smoky, and chafing restlessly against the foundations of its richly colored cliffs, runs the Ingonish River, which comes from the almost impenetrable forests and morasses of the interior of northern Cape Breton to pour its clear waters into the ocean. No bridge crosses the stream, and the traveler who descends from the heights of Smoky towards the fishermen’s hamlet of Ingonish South Bay, which he sees scattered upon a sandy spit at his feet, finds himself halting upon the edge of deep, swift water, with cove on his left and bay on his right, and never a sign of a way across. If his voice is strong and clear, he may waken the fishermen’s dogs on the other shore, and, what is more to the purpose, bring a red-haired, blue-eyed lad to the flatboat on the sand, and to the big sweep which will presently urge it across to the foot of the red cliffs. The people of Ingonish are in part of Irish parentage and in part of Scotch, but they are almost all members of the Roman communion, and made of different stuff from the blue Presbyterian Highlanders who dwell along the coast between Cape Smoky and the head of St. Anne’s Bay. In the best of the houses which stand one beyond another on the South Bay beach lives Mr. Baker, whose hospitality makes a journey beyond Smoky a possibility, and more than that, a pleasure. Here may be laid aside the stoicism needed to sustain life during the journey up the north shore, and here, in the midst of restless ocean, tawny sands, red cliffs, undulating forests, and brooks alive with trout, can be found all that nature can give to stimulate happiness or to lull the troubled mind, and all that the reasonable wanderer can expect to find to make his weary flesh comfortable. In the days which we spent at Mr. Baker’s we learned to love Ingonish more and more, as we explored it by land and by sea.

I.

BY LAND.

The breath of fire floated in the air, making it hazy, softening the mountain contours, giving a wicked look to the sea, and filling me, through its perfume, with the same feeling of unrest that the moose and caribou have as they feel the smoke of burning forests tingling in their nostrils. Looking inland, I saw the hills marshaled along the river, rank behind rank, with their relative distances clearly defined by the smoke. The mercury was above 90° Fahrenheit, and mountain climbing was not to be thought of. Middle Head, seen across the waves, suggested cool breezes, and towards its lean, half - grassy, half - rocky finger, pointing ever eastward, we took our way. From Mr. Baker’s, half a mile of sandy road runs northward parallel with an ideally beautiful beach. Then the road bends to the left, inland, while the beach curves to the right, seaward, rising soon into sandy banks, which in turn change to sculptured cliffs at whose foot the sea murmurs.

Terns with black-tipped wings skimmed close to the restless waves, and over the fretted sand where the ripples had left the marks of their lips. No one walked upon the road where man had scratched together badly the same sand which nature had made perfect by the tides.

When I looked at Ingonish beach as it was, silent, lonely, serene, and pure, I thought what it might some day be made if fashionable men and women, on pleasure bent, chanced to discover it and to feel the thrill of its sun-tempered tide, which is as mild as that of their favorite but more southern shores. Now, at least, the absence of hotels where such men and women might be fed and put to bed, if by chance the sea or their own feet cast them upon these distant sands, makes it certain that they will not come to banish Eden by their presence.

Between the sand beach and the road there rises a massive wall of rounded stones, varying in size from a goose egg to a human skull. Can waves alone have raised such a dike ? The same question came to me as I studied a similar wall running along the seaward side of the bar which well-nigh makes St. Anne’s Bay a lake, and Torquil McLean’s ferry a superfluity instead of a somewhat malodorous joy. Perhaps the fact that often, in winter, the ice comes stealing across from Newfoundland and the seas that lie beyond it, and packs itself against St. Anne’s bar and all the north coast of Cape Breton, may explain these walls. The thrust of the ice could scour the shallows for miles, and bear along loose stones to the first beach whose sloping face would receive them. The density of the arrangement of these stones, and the abruptness of the front which they present to the sea, point to ice action rather than to that of waves alone. The wall is so high that those walking or driving along the road cannot see the beach, while those bathing cannot see the country inland. Shut in between shingle and sea, we walked the length of the sand, and then climbed to the top of the bluffs of Middle Head.

The evening before, while watching meteors from the beach, we had seen the sky above Middle Head suddenly lighted up by a bright fire. It lasted ten or fifteen minutes, then died away so quickly that we felt sure no building could have been destroyed. Now, on the narrow path leading along the edge of the cliffs we met three men. They bowed and touched their caps with the smiling politeness characteristic of most of the natives, Gaelic or Irish. I asked them what and where the fire had been ; and in a few words they said that Rory This had bought the right to cut grass on Sandy That’s land, but that after the hay was made a dispute arose as to the price; so the hay had been burned to quiet the trouble. I confess I could not reason out the process by which either Rory who had labored, or Sandy who had owned the grass, could find comfort in putting match to the hay.

Some of the rock which supported Sandy’s scorched hayfield, and which formed portions of the cliffs of Middle Head, contrasted strikingly with the prevailing red syenite of the Ingonish region. It was white ; not however like newly fallen snow, but like that which this world has somewhat soiled. Gypsum, or “ plaster,” as Cape Breton calls it, occurs in many places on the Bras d’Or and along the north coast. It suffers much more from the action of water and frost than the harder rocks surrounding it, so that where it appears on the surface there are sure to be odd depressions in the soil, “ sink holes,” into which earth and trees have settled ; or, in cliff faces, deep hollows, coves, or caverns. The path along Middle Head follows closely the trend of the shore, and from it we found ourselves looking down into the most suggestive little cove that smugglers would care to own or story-writers to dream over. Its opening to the sea was narrow, and all its walls were high and steep, yet it had a tiny sand beach where a boat could land easily even if storm waves beat angrily on the stern cliffs outside.

About halfway out on the Head we came upon a spring, — a cup-shaped hollow in the mud, filled with sun-warmed water, — which tempted us to rest near it under the low pines and spruces, where Cape Smoky could be seen across the bay, its richly toned cliffs wonderfully worn by waves, and its lofty head resting in the haze that gives the mountain promontory its name. Its outer point, which cuts in twain waves unchecked from the Grand Banks, is called “ the Bill of Smoky.” From this point back to the Ingonish light the syenite crags rise supreme above waves or ice. Near the lighthouse the lines of Smoky grow more gentle. The forest, which above the Bill is but a narrow line next the sky, slopes downward to the placid water inside the bar, and rolls on westward to join other expanses of spruce and birch, hemlock and maple, which clothe the mountains and fill the river valley with soft foliage. While dreamily watching this fair northern picture, as it quivered in the heat of a half-tropical day, we were startled by a sudden cry which came from the waves far below. Then a man, with a coil of rope on his arm, passed us, and went cautiously to the edge of the precipice, over which he peered and made signals. Thoughts of smugglers, of hidden wines brought by night from St. Pierre, of a discovery by the smugglers that we knew of their landing-place, and finally of the consequences of their discovery, floated through our minds, already saturated with the romantic elements of Ingonish scenery and life. Then more men came, and passed. They too crept to the edge and looked into the dizzy waves beneath. One of them lowered the rope over the cliff, and seemed to be trying to lasso something many feet below. Our curiosity prevailed over our timidity, and we drew near to the edge of the rock. The vision of smuggled champagne faded, and in its place was put the truth : that a sheep had gone over the cliff to a narrow shelf more than halfway down to the sea, and that these men were trying to rescue him alive, while a boy in a boat tossed by waves below shouted advice to them.

Middle Head, and many a mile of coast north of it, is the home of the raven, or “ big crow,” as the Ingonish people call him. Close to the smuggler’s cove a long, ragged point juts out from the cliffs. At its extremity huge masses of broken rock lie in the wash of the tide. As we passed this point, I saw an uncanny shape squatted upon its outer rock. It was a bird, web-footed, gaunt, black, vultureheaded, yet with a sac, a hideous skinny object, fitted like a pelican’s pouch beneath its beak. A native passing said it was a “ shag,” which meant nothing to me until I found that “ shag ” and “ cormorant ” were two equally expressive names for this same nightmarish bird of rock and wave. I crept out upon the point, first skulking behind wild rose bushes and goldenrod, and then coasting down a sandy slope, out of sight of the spectre I was stalking. Gaining the water’s edge, I clambered along among huge rocks upon which seaweeds grew and trailed their fingers in the tide, and so came nearer and nearer to the shag. Suddenly I looked up as a huge shadow swept over me, and saw, black and big against the hot sky, a passing bird which watched me with keen eyes. Growing from the rocks which overhung me was a hunchbacked pine, the sport of every mocking wind that harried this rough coast, and in its bent branches sat five ravens. They croaked, but did not fly, satisfied to watch me as I squirmed over the rocks towards the black beast with a throat sac. In coloring and shape they were like crows, yet I knew they were not crows ; something in the shape of the head was different; they did not treat me as crows would have done. I felt that they were strangers.

When I reached the last rock which could by any chance shield my body from the cormorant, I raised my head very slowly until my eyes came upon a level with the rock’s upper surface. About twenty feet away, clasping with its hideous feet the last rock left naked by the tide, sat the shag. It seemed to me that it might be a bittern which, having offended against the gods, had been condemned to leave its beloved meadows and thickets, whispering rushes and perfumed grasses, in order to pass ages upon the shores of a sobbing ocean in which it should find no peace and no abidingplace. Its garb looked as sackcloth and ashes might well look after a thorough soaking in salt water. When it craned upwards its skinny neck and panted, it reached the climax of its loathsomeness, for the livid sac pulsated under its distressed breathing. I had watched the horrid fish-eater long enough, so, rising to my full height, I had the satisfaction of seeing the monster shrink into itself with fear, turn its ugly countenance seaward, and then flap away over the hot, sparkling waves until almost out of sight. When half a mile out, it turned and flew slowly along the crest of the waves towards the rocky cliffs of Middle Head, and then dropped suddenly into the water, upon which it remained bobbing like a duck.

Free from this incubus, I looked once more upon the home of the ravens, — the hunchbacked pine, the shattered rocks, and, far above them, the cliffs upon whose inaccessible ledges young ravens first see light. The surroundings were those of a sturdier bird than the crow. There were no gently sighing forests, waving cornfields, or placid lakes here, but instead the stern crags, rude sea, and broken rocks,—makers of deep, angry music, harsh discords, and wild, sorrowful refrains. The crow boasts from the moment his loud voice first comes back to his ears from the echoing hillside, he steals from the time he sees the corn blades start from the furrow, and he shuns danger as often as the tread of man or deer snaps a dry twig in the forest. The raven’s croak can wake no echo to match the sea’s chorus, his food is not won by theft, and dangers which come from sky and tossing wave are not such as to stimulate craft or to inculcate wariness.

II.

BY SEA.

All day long heat had quivered in the air and sparkled on the sea, but now, at evening, there was coolness creeping in from the ocean, past crag and sand, banishing ennui and tightening strong muscles as they tugged at the oars. The coolness and the wind seemed to have little to do with each other; for the wind was westerly, and came down river from the forest-clad mountains, while the coolness came in from the east under the deep shadow which the red cliffs of Smoky cast upon the bay. Thump, thump, the oars pounded forward and back upon the tholepins, and the boat moved slowly, forward inside the bar towards the gut. The heavy sail did us no service ; merely made me more alone in the twilight, as I sat in the bow, with my back to the mast, and watched the waves heave under us.

We were turning our backs to the hills now, and heading straight out through the gut. On the right was the lighthouse with its newly lit red star glowing inside the polished lenses. Above it towered the beginning of Smoky’s cliffs, still deep red in the twilight, or green where the forest far above caught the last rays of a fair sunset glow. On the left, the long beach and bar ended in a pier, with fishhouses and boats, men smoking, cod drying on the flakes, lobster pots piled up for the season, and collie dogs watching life go by on the tide, or dreaming as they lay on the dry nets. Dead ahead, a fisherman’s boat was coming in close to the pier, its oars splashing in the choppy sea where inner and outer waters wrestled in the narrow pass. Our oars thumped louder, and we shot through the swirl, and out past lighthouse, pier, boats, rocks, and the residue of land and life, towards where the sea, the sky, and Smoky lived in a great dream together. Surely this place was beautiful, and tonight, as I sat in the bow alone, the flapping sail behind me, the rise and fall, the heave, surge, and wash of the sea lent a magic joy to the voyage we were taking out to the Bill of Smoky. I looked far ahead and strained my eyes to see what was beyond ; and then I thought, what matters it to look, to strive to see an end, a goal, when there is no end, no goal, to see ? This is no mountain, with ridge after ridge to surmount, and an ultimate peak to conquer, with all its prizes of prostrate earth and nearer clouds to look upon. Tins is only the sea with its monotonous level, having in its endlessness no incentive to action, no stimulus to struggle. Still I kept gazing out into the distance, and wondering whether some dim sail would not appear in the gloom, or some rock rise from among the billows for our boat to break itself against.

As we glided on our undulating path across the restless water, the dark mass of Cape Smoky attended us on our right like a shadow. The waves splashed incessantly upon the broken rocks at the foot of the cliffs, and sometimes in the hollow of a wave not far from us a jagged mass of rock flashed menacingly for a moment before the water slid over it again and hid its threat from our eyes. The hand of time falls heavily upon the red sandstone, and every year huge pieces of rock drop into the sea and become the sport of the tide. At one point a buttress of rock protruded into the bay, and through it I could see light. The busy waves and frosts had carved an arch in the stone, through which birds could fly and storm winds blow. Far up the cliff, a brook, which had worked patiently downward from the soil on the summit of the mountain, appeared in a circular opening, and dashed its small spray seaward. Most brooks must fight their way over boulders and fallen trees, through dark ravines, by hot waysides and sleepy meadows, at last to win only a right to merge their lives in the greater life of the river. This brook had gone straight to its mother ocean, unchecked, unturned, and when its clear, cool drops fell towards the sea they were as pure as when they left the sky. The brook seemed symbolic of some lives, which, though living out their appointed time, go back to the source of life without ever having been polluted by society, or lost in its sullen and ill-regulated current.

Thump, thump, thump, the oars worked with their clumsy rhythm, urging us eastward, and out towards the line of rough water beyond the Bill. The swell grew stronger, and now and then the boat rose so high or fell so low that my dream was interrupted by the emphasis of the motion. Far behind us the red eye of the lighthouse glared at the mouth of the harbor, and marked upon each wave’s edge the path by which we had come, close under the shelter of the cliffs. A few strokes more and we were abreast of the Bill, that ultimate wedge of rock which Smoky thrusts into the northern sea, piercing the cold waves, and dividing the fierce storm currents beating down from Newfoundland. The wind was fresher in the unprotected sea, and the lighthouse with its nestling lights upon the bar seemed much further away than it had a moment or two before. A sense of loneliness, almost of danger, crept over us, and by common consent the boat was turned backward into the shelter of the great rock, and the homeward voyage begun.

It was now my turn at the oar, and a thrill passed through me as I grasped the great sweep and wrestled over it with the waves. Night had fallen. All color had died on the red cliffs of SmokyStars had burned their way into the dark blue sky, and among them stray meteors fell seaward, or glided athwart the constellations. A year before, I had spent the long hours of the night on the peak of Chocorua, watching these wayward waifs of space as they danced behind the cloud curtains of the storm. Now, with all a Viking’s zeal, I tugged at ray big oar, pounded my tholepin, made deep eddies chase each other in the dark water, and breathed joyously deep breaths of the salt northern air. What contrasts man may make for himself, in his life, if he yields to the spirit of restlessness within him! The Vikings yielded to it, and swept the northern seas, and I felt in my weak arms something of their strength and wantonness as I urged the boat homewards under Smoky’s shadow. Black rocks, placid sea, bright stars, dancing meteors, and breath of the northern ocean, — I had them all, even as the Norsemen had them.

A faint protest came from the other side of the boat. We were not rowing a race: there was no hurry; and if I cut inshore any farther we should go on the rocks. So I eased my frantic stroke, and watched the phosphorescence play in my oars’ eddies. In the sky, bright masses ploughed their way through our air, impelled by an unknown force, driven from an unknown distance, and aiming for an unknown fate. In the sea, bright atoms ploughed their way through the water and glowed in soft splendor. The meteors are inorganic, dead mysteries. The phosphorescence is an organic, living mystery. Yet it is no more impossible to imagine the history and future of a body perpetually traveling through endless space than to try to count the numbers of these phosphorescent myriads. Generally I have the feeling that science is bringing us nearer to a perception of what the vast creation is which surrounds us, but at times the greater truth flashes before my eyes, — that what we are really learning is not more than a drop in the limitless ocean of fact.

The row back to the lighthouse seemed shorter than the voyage out, partly because we really went faster, and partly because we had less detail to look at, now that the night had covered the beauties of the many-toned cliffs and the distant mountains. When we shot through the gut from the bay to the inner basin, the air became damper and the darkness more intense. With caution and frequent peering ahead we rowed towards the creek in which we were to land. Here a shoal had to be avoided, there a fisherman’s boat passed by.

Now, in the gloom we could discern a mass of willows in which the kingfishers had been sounding their loud call during the day, and beyond them loomed up the timbers of the old mill whose wreck was to be our pier. Poor old mill, it had been starved to death by tariffs, a grim punishment for its slaughter of many a good king of the forest. We landed, and in the soft stillness made our stumbling way across field and pasture to the cosy Ingonish parlor, where, in strange contrast to rugged coast, and stern mountain, and the general simplicity of the fishermen’s houses on the shore, we had found refinement, comfort, and open hospitality.

Beyond the great wall of rounded stones, raised by ice and storm, lay the beach. The rippling waves played softly upon the firm sand, making dainty lines across it. We could hear the murmur of those waves and the faint rustle of the breeze in the shrubbery. All was peace and gentleness, yet under that kindly music those who knew Ingonish Bay could hear other voices. High in the air the powers of the storm were holding council, and deep in the sea the tides were planning to hurl themselves upon the shore. It is always so by the northern ocean ; and when the waves break most lovingly upon Smoky, the old mountain and his children the fishermen are most alert for the tempest which is to follow.

Frank Bolles.